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Monday, September 16, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Most Legislatures go into overtime, but the days needed to finish business have crept up over the years

OLYMPIA – The sundial outside the south entrance of the domed Legislative Building on the Capitol Campus. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA – The sundial outside the south entrance of the domed Legislative Building on the Capitol Campus. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

As the Legislature slid into its third special session Wednesday, some critics complained about lawmakers not being able to do their job in the 105 days the constitution gives them, suggesting they get their act together like their predecessors of the “good old days.”

The first criticism is valid; the second, not so much. A check of the record – which beats twiddling one’s thumbs in the press house, if only barely – shows that since 1951, legislators have gone home on time only five times in an odd-numbered year, which is when they write the biennial budget.

Before that time, they pretty much finished in 60 days – the original length of a legislative session since 1889 – and went home for two years, coming back rarely in case of an emergency.

One could argue that until the middle of the last century, Washington was mostly a place where people cut trees, grew wheat and apples and made a few planes. So how hard could its budget be? That started to change in the 1940s, but there was a war on, so one might assume everyone chipped in and did their part, including legislators.

Things started to change in 1951, when the Legislature needed an extra 10 days to finish work. By 1961, that was up to 22 days, and by 1965, to 54. In some circles, they’d call this mission creep. Lawmakers were still pretty well able to go home and stay there in the even-numbered years until 1969.

That year the Legislature needed an extra 60 days, then came back in 1970 for 32. An extra 60 in 1971, plus 44 in 1972. An extra 88 in 1975, plus 75 in 1976.

You can see where this is heading. Going into overtime got so predictable that lawmakers came up with a constitutional amendment in 1979 that called for sessions of 105 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years. Instead of being unlimited, special sessions could be only 30 days long.

Supporters sold it as a way to save money, prevent control by professional politicians and make the Legislature more efficient. Voters bought.

Lawmakers managed to get in and out in the allotted 60 days in 1980, and they tacked only one day on to the regular session in 1981 … except the recession got so bad they had to come back for 24 more in the fall and needed an extra 37 the next year. And an extra 31 in 1983.

They needed extra innings in almost every odd-numbered year through 2003, although the short sessions in even years ended pretty much on time. In the mid- to late double-aughts, there was a string of years when the Legislature finished on time. Those are the halcyon days most people recall when talking about things running smoothly.

Then the recession hit and the 2010 session went an extra 30 days, as did the 2011 session. The 2012 session needed 31 and the 2013 needed 48, taking the Legislature so late into June that people started talking seriously about a government shutdown if budgets weren’t done before July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. They passed the operating budget June 28 and the capital budget June 29.

In 2015, the session went an extra 71 days, needing three special sessions. They avoided a government shutdown by passing budgets the governor signed at 11:40 p.m. June 30, but they needed 10 more days to approve all the legislation that actually made that budget work. The Legislature had 20 days of stoppage time last year.

That revision from almost 40 years ago isn’t working too well, so it’s not surprising people are talking about a change. That would probably take another constitutional amendment.

If history is any guide, any change might help for a while, but eventually they’ll blow through whatever time limits any new amendment sets.

Much bigger than a breadbox

Energy Secretary Rick Perry gives the impression of being a good ole boy who can ease his way through tough spots with an ingratiating smile and some country charm.

Sen. Patty Murray sometimes gives the impression of a no-nonsense preschool teacher – which she once was.

So what happens when serious teacher asks a question and doesn’t like good ole boy’s good answer? We know from their last meeting in the Senate Appropriations Committee, in which Perry was explaining the Trump administration’s budget proposal to cut money for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation cleanup.

Murray started schooling Perry on the federal government’s moral and legal obligation to clean up the mess it left at Hanford while making the stuff that helped win World War II. She called the budget proposal shortsighted and inadequate. She asked sternly: How are you going to meet the deadlines on various legal agreements with those cuts?

Lots of ideas, he explained. “I’m coming out, hopefully this summer, and that we can walk across the Hanford site together…”

“Well, you can’t walk across it,” she cut in. “It’s. Really. Big.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Perry said with a smile. “I’ll attempt to travel it however you choose. But the point is, I’d like to come out there with you, and we can talk about the cost, and are we getting a good return on our dollars.”

Everybody’s concerned about costs, she replied. “but this is a nuclear waste site. You can’t just throw out legal decrees that are there.”

Their five-minute exchange is on the blog website, www.spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.

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